WASHINGTON, March 5 The Bush administration
defended the Medicare prescription drug benefit program on
Monday as being cheaper than initially forecast, challenging
the U.S. government's top accountant who called it "fiscally
"Over 90 percent (of Medicare recipients) are covered and
the program costs are much less than what experts predicted
when the bill was enacted in 2004," said Leslie Norwalk, acting
administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid
Services, a unit of the Health and Human Services Department.
Medicare is the federal health insurance program covering
42 million elderly and disabled Americans. The program was
expanded last year to include prescription drugs, and the
Kaiser Family Foundation said the estimated cost was $31
billion in 2006.
"Medicare was the only significant health insurance program
in America without this benefit," Norwalk said in a statement.
"Adding a drug benefit was a major step in getting Medicare's
benefits in line with today's medical care."
Her defense came as U.S. Comptroller General David Walker
said the new benefit would require $8 trillion to be invested
at current Treasury rates to cover the gap between what
Medicare will likely take in and what it is expected to cost
over the next 75 years.
That $8 trillion cost was "not disclosed, not discussed
before the bill was enacted into law," Walker told the
Federation of American Hospitals on Monday.
On CBS's 60 Minutes program on Sunday night, Walker called
the prescription drug program "probably the most fiscally
irresponsible piece of legislation since the 1960s ... because
we promise way more than we can afford to keep."
Democrats who now control Congress have criticized the
Medicare prescription drug plan, which a Republican-led
Congress passed in 2003, because it barred the government from
The House of Representatives has approved a bill to let the
government negotiate lower drug prices instead of leaving it to
private companies to secure discounts. The Senate has not yet
acted, and the Bush administration has vowed to veto it.